This year, Social Security’s birthday, Aug. 14, comes at an exciting time. Congress is on the verge of greatly expanding our economic security through its upcoming reconciliation bill.
Because Social Security cannot be addressed through budget reconciliation, it is not part of that legislation. But given the overwhelming consensus among the American people in support of expanding Social Security’s modest benefits, Congress should make it the next priority immediately after the Build Back Better legislation passes.
Enacting legislation that expands Social Security builds on the strong foundation laid down by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his colleagues eighty-six years ago, on Aug. 14, 1935. On that August day, when President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, he described the new law as “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
President Roosevelt was determined that Social Security would be a success. In his Jan. 17, 1935 message transmitting the proposed legislation to Congress, he cautioned:
“It is overwhelmingly important to avoid any danger of permanently discrediting the sound and necessary policy of Federal legislation for economic security by attempting to apply it on too ambitious a scale before actual experience has provided guidance for the permanently safe direction of such efforts. The place of such a fundamental in our future civilization is too precious to be jeopardized now by extravagant action.”
Roosevelt’s intention was to gradually expand the “precious” institution over time. Just four years after its passage, Congress expanded Social Security to include survivor and family benefits. Congress continued to expand Social Security for more than three decades. But then, a billionaire-funded campaign seeking to discredit Social Security — and indeed, government itself — stopped Congress from increasing benefits for the last half century.
But now, at long last, a president who ran on expanding Social Security benefits sits in the Oval Office. Democrats control both chambers of Congress. Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonSenate, House Democrats split over taxes in .5T package Happy 86th birthday, Social Security — it's time to expand benefits Lobbying world MORE (D-Conn.), a leading champion of expanding Social Security, chairs the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee. Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees Wyden releases new tax proposals as Democrats work on .5T bill MORE (D-Ohio), a fighter for working families, chairs the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy.
A further expansion of Social Security is long overdue. This year, President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE and Congress have the opportunity to follow President Roosevelt’s directive and take a large step forward.
Expanding Social Security is both wise policy and smart politics. It is a solution to the nation’s looming retirement income crisis, when too many workers fear that they must work until they die. It is a solution to immoral, destabilizing income and wealth inequality. It is a solution to the squeeze on working families, caught between the needs of the old and the young.
The COVID pandemic, which is hitting seniors hardest, has made the importance of Social Security even clearer. In the last year, many older workers lost their jobs or had to quit to stay safe. The pandemic has underscored the value of Social Security’s survivor, disability, and old age benefits.
After fifty years, many Social Security expansions are needed. There should be an across-the-board benefit increase so that every current and future beneficiary gets a raise. Social Security’s benefits are inadequately low by virtually any standard.
In addition to the across-the-board increases, Congress should enact increases that are targeted to those populations that are most disadvantaged in the workplace and those aspects of the program most in need of updating. These include:
- Updating Social Security’s minimum benefit so that those who work a lifetime at low wages will not retire into poverty.
- Adopting a more accurate cost of living increase, so that Social Security’s modest benefits don’t erode in value with each passing year.
- Repealing the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset, which have prevented public servants from receiving their full Social Security benefits.
- Providing credit towards future Social Security benefits to people (disproportionately women) who take time out of the paid workforce to care for children and other family members, as so many have had to do during the pandemic.
- Improving benefits for those who are disproportionately poor, including widows and widowers, children living with grandparents, and the oldest beneficiaries.
- Ending the five-month waiting period for Social Security disability beneficiaries, as well as the 24-month wait for them to receive Medicare.
- Updating, streamlining, and expanding the companion Supplemental Security Income program.
All of these improvements are fully affordable. America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. How we spend our money is a question of values. Do we use our common wealth to give tax breaks to the rich? Or do we use it to benefit all of us by expanding Social Security?
A robust expansion of Social Security benefits, funded by having millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share, is the best birthday present we could give the program — and ourselves.
By the time Social Security turns eighty-seven next August, I am confident that champions in Congress will introduce a robust bill to protect and expand Social Security. Democrats should hold hearings and floor votes in the House and Senate. If Republicans try to block the legislation, Democrats should eliminate the filibuster, and tell voters why they had to do it.
Americans across the political spectrum support protecting and expanding Social Security, and will reward Democrats in 2022. More importantly, we will be rewarding ourselves, our children, and their children.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.